STEM Ambassadors

STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths”. A STEM club is usually an after school club (sometimes a lunchtime club), where kids turn up to get involved in projects, to share ideas, and to learn new things outside of the normal classroom environment.

They are not there to compete with the normal formal education provided by schools, but rather to complement it. A STEM club allows kids the time and space to experiment with projects where learning takes place by doing rather than following a set curriculum.

Some schools schedule specific activities, such as buying and building and racing a radio controlled robot, whereas others just provide a bit of a space and some guidance to the kids to keep them moving on little projects. It is the latter form that is of interest to the whole Raspberry Pi movement, and in some way the after school STEM club is a bit like a Raspberry Jam.

A Raspberry Jam involves people turning up to some space, some of which have some projects or ideas to demonstrate, and some of which are looking for ideas of things to make or help in getting started. There are a mix of people who turn up at a Raspberry Jam, and often I see some regulars and also some new attendees just looking for ideas.

In a school STEM club environment, the Raspberry Jam format of “here is a space, turn up and do stuff” works fine for the first week or two, as often kids are desperate to learn about the Raspberry Pi, how much it costs, where they can get all the bits, and what they can do with it. After a couple of weeks, it’s vital to get the kids working on some sort of project.

Where are our future engineers and scientists?

For some time now, I have been worried about the future state of the computing industry, and in particular, worried that the younger generation of today are quite wrapped up in using computers, and not really learning how to create new programs. I see recent graduates coming out of universities with more limited practical experience than my generation completed university with. I recently came to the conclusion that the root of the problem starts in schools.

It was the IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) that signposted me as to where to get started in helping out, and one of the places they put me in contact with was the local regional STEM contract holders.

Getting Involved

The STEM Contract holders are given a (somewhat dwindling) pot of money from central government to engage with schools on “enrichment and enhancement activities” (E&E) with schools. Apart from a core team, they rely very heavility on volunteers from the community to provide the “at the coalface” work in schools – and often this ends up being at STEM clubs, careers days, open days, and in some cases teacher training and some classroom work.

The regional contract holders in this area of the country are:

Essex: Explore STEM (Jayne Foster)
Herts/Luton: Setpoint Herts (Pauline Bezzant)
Cambs/Beds: Stemteam East (Elizabeth Crilly)

The national organisation that ties all the regional groups together is called STEMNET

Signing Up

The process of joining as a “STEM Ambassador” or “School Science Ambassador” is free and relatively smooth. Anyone over the age of 17 can become a STEM Ambassador. However, to work in schools there are various loops you have to jump through – you can’t just go into a school these days without being invited and having the necessary paperwork. You can work direct, but it’s much better to work through the coordinated network provided by STEMNet.

Fortunately, the process is handled by the regional STEM contract holder. You apply via their website by filling in a simple form, and starting what is called an “online disclosure”. About a page of simple questions, and your application for an online CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check (now called a DBS – Disclosure and Barring Service) begins. For me, it was about 3 weeks for this process to take place, in the meantime I was contacted by the local STEM contract holder and invited to join in the next STEM Ambassador training session.

The training session is only a couple of hours, and gives you much useful information about what is expected of you, what type of work you can do with schools, some examples of projects and activities that existing STEM Ambassadors have run, and some golden rules to abide by when working in schools. As part of this induction you have to provide 3 forms of verifiable ID (they give you a list prior to the induction) that they look at and record that they have seen original paperwork).

After the induction, and after you have received your CRB certificate, you are then ready to go into a school or after school club and help out. Requests for help from schools come through every 2-3 weeks from your STEM contract holder in the form of an email, you can find requests on the STEMNET website, and also you can follow up on your own if you have existing links with schools.

The main thing to remember is to always take in your CRB certificate (as many schools need to see this and write down the certificate number before allowing you to work with children), and always fill in the STEMNET database (via their website) before you visit a school – this ensures that you are fully covered by a very comprehensive insurance package.

Teachers are very busy people

Most of my work with schools involves helping set up after school Raspberry Pi clubs.

The one thing that I learnt very quickly is that teachers are very busy people, and don’t really have time to prepare for after school clubs. They are also often not subject matter experts with computing.

To set up an after school club, they need help knowing what to buy, getting all the SD-cards configured ready for use, buying the right leads, getting donated monitors, power supplies, sorting out internet access with the IT department, and planning some resources for the first few sessions. All of this is covered in detail in these articles

STEM club – 50 enthusiastic kids

Raspberry Pi jargon cheat-sheet

This is one area where volunteers can really make a difference. I am aiming to help set up one new after school STEM club every month with different schools, and I hope to visit a couple of times to help them get their resources together ready to launch, and to help out on the first night to make sure everyone has all the right bits and can start working towards some little projects. I also aim to go back a month later to check how they are getting on and to give them some more ideas on projects and to help if they have got stuck on anything. But it’s up to the schools how often they need help.

Really, after school clubs need regular volunteers to help keep kids focused on projects and learning new material, as it’s too much for one teacher to cover everyone (especially as everyone may be working on different projects). As a STEM Ambassador & volunteer, this is something that you can usefully do to help out, that doesn’t require much preparation – just turn up to help on the night, ask kids to explain what they are trying to do, help them to find the necessary online manuals, help them to decode some of the jargon, and sometimes to show them how to do little bits and pieces at the command line.

Teachers need resources

Not only are teachers short on time, they are short on resources. Week 1 and 2 of a typical after school STEM club might focus on getting the kids to experiment a little bit and to form some ideas of what they would like to make or what they would like to program. I usually get them writing simple little python programs to enter their name and age and do some simple calculations. After that, they need real projects to work on.

I had quite a lot of interest from people in the audience when I gave a short talk at Milton Keynes Raspberry Jam#8 talk. When I said that this is how people could help – one chap in particular said he would be uncomfortable going into a school environment, but that he would love to use some of his experimentation and computing skills to put together resources and projects that could be used as starting points to inspire kids.


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